India has now achieved the rare feat of owning a space observatory and a Mars orbiter

It’s rocket science.
It’s rocket science.
Image: ISRO
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While NASA was telling the world about its claim to have found liquid water on Mars, the Indian space agency ISRO quietly achieved what so many other nations have been dreaming of. ISRO’s list of achievements has grown quickly, and can only be beaten by rich nations who invest a lot more in space research than India does.

In September 2014, it successfully put a satellite—affectionately called Mangalayaan (Hindi for Mars vehicle)—in orbit around Mars. On Monday (Sept. 28), it launched a space observatory called Astrosat, which makes ISRO the world’s fourth space agency to have achieved both feats.

The others who have achieved these feats are the US’s NASA, Europe’s ESA, and the Soviet Union’s space program. (Russia’s Roscosmos has a space observatory but hasn’t succeeded in a mission to Mars.)

As far space observatories go, Astrosat’s capacity is humble. It is armed with instruments that can detect X-rays and other high-energy particles. They can be used to search for black holes in the galaxy, detect magnetic fields of neutron stars, and other astronomically interesting phenomenon.

Astrosat’s scale is nowhere close to Hubble’s. At nearly six times the size, Hubble is a NASA space observatory launched in 1990 that has captured beautiful images and changed people’s perspective of the cosmos. But Astrosat, which cost only $27 million and took 10 years to build, will boost astronomy research in the country.

ISRO’s commercial arm, Antrix, is doing well to capitalize on such launches too. After three years of operation, ISRO is looking to allow other countries to buy time on Astrosat for their own measurements. Antrix was setup with an aim to commercialize technologies ISRO produces, and has so far proved successful in providing relatively cheap services to other nations with space ambitions. For instance, with Astrosat, six other satellites were launched: one each for Indonesia and Canada, and four for the US.

The tale of India’s space research has been one of frugal innovation. But the reality is that ISRO does a lot more than people give it credit for. Astrosat is only the latest for an organization that now competes with the best in the world.